Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Power, and the surrender of power

Written by: on October 26, 2017

In the development of our DMin research, we must not neglect the significant potential of image and video to record, track, explain, and illustrate concepts.  Sarah Pink’s book, Doing Visual Ethnography (2nd Edition), advances the power of image to convey meaning; as we apply these principles, we can also communicate our ideas in a more comprehensive, and creative, fashion.

Communicating meaning is laden with minefields.  We tend to assume that we are clearly delivering a message.  But what I think I say is often interpreted differently by another.  Pink states, “Ethnographers ought to be self-conscious about how they represent themselves to informants and they ought to consider how their identities are constructed and understood by the people with whom they work.”[1] The ethnographer must understand her own power in plying her trade.

The tools with which we communicate – in an ethnographer’s case, the camera – wield considerable influence to tell a story that may have little to do with what is really happening.  The one with the camera has power over the person photographed.  Pink asserts, “The act of photography is imbued with issues of power”.[2]  The ethnographer frames the story and tells it as their artefact is used, shared and commented upon.  The informant traditionally had little influence on what reality was conveyed.  This, in my opinion, is Pink’s main concern and the purpose of the book – to create a more level playing field between ethnographer and informant, and in her book, she suggests multiple ways to share power with the subject.

In my case, while I consider my role to be one of non-traditional ministry, others observe my role in philanthropy and interpret this ministry through a grid of wealth and privilege.  My tools are considered powerful.  Money has remarkable power when held and retained.  It has potentially greater power when unleashed and directed in the form of a grant.  The tools of my trade – philanthropic grants – shape organizational life, determine strategic direction, and influence ministry outcomes.

While she touches on the power of the camera, Pink could have offered deeper analysis of its power, and of the power imbalance that comes from being a person in a power role.  While she offers that her tool can be used as a can-opener to “establish rapport with one’s informants”[3], power dynamics are in considerable play when a camera utilized in ethnographic research is snapping merrily away.  Reviewer Gabrielle Hezekiah also critiqued Pink, believing she should have focused more on making “…connections between current debates on subjectivity and the gaze within ‘subject’ communities and the development of reflexive visual practice in the social sciences.”[4]  This objectifying gaze can be overcome when one begins to utilize the camera as a “democratizing technology”[5] that strengthens relationship and respects the other.

These similar distinctions between the powerful and the powerless also resonate strongly with me in my work.  Pink struggles with the term “informant”[6] because the relationships she has with her subjects have become intimate and familiar.  In a similar way, I struggle with the traditional term “grantee” which reduces a person to a transactional construct based on the money – a grantee is one who receives a grant.  For both Pink and myself, we long to humanize the relationship, and move away from commodifying the other.

So how does one break free of this power imbalance, and allow grants for ministry to become a democratizing technology?  How can we lower the barriers that are often present between the Haves and Have Nots?  Is it possible that just as Pink’s friend/subject roles blended as she entered into the Spanish subculture of bullfighting[7], so too could giver/receiver roles blend in a ministry setting?

I think it is difficult, but possible, for Christian philanthropists.  Space limits me from going into detail, but some of the ways to lower the power imbalance include transparent and regular communication, a clear process for applying for and disbursing funds, an acknowledgment that imperfection is likely and acceptable in achieving goals, and recognizing that we, as givers, only play a minor and secondary role in advancing the outcomes desired.  It may not feel like it if you’re seeking financial aid, but if God owns the cattle on a thousand hills, our role as givers is just 1 in 1000.

Andy Crouch, in his thoughtful book, Strong and Weak, articulates that the way forward for one who follows Christ is by embracing vulnerability as He did in the kenosis[8].  One must not grasp at the gifts of wealth and privilege; instead their gift is held in in tension with vulnerability and surrendered with open hands. Crouch states, “…our hidden and obvious flaws, failures and limitations are in fact the path to true strength.”[9] In a similar vein, I’m reminded by our recent Advance.  While powerful as an influential ANC leader, Nelson Mandela chose to embrace the vulnerability and silence imposed by Robben Island, and he was later lifted up as President of the new Republic.  A short one term later, before constitutionally mandated, he stepped down to provide a model for democratic transition in Africa.

I’d like to conclude with this brief video – a visual artefact – that tells a simple story of grace when the videographer chose to relinquish her power over her subjects.  While those with the tools (be they cameras or grants) have inherent power, the way they administer their power in vulnerability can be a source of healing and empowerment to others.


[1] Sarah Pink. Doing: Visual Ethnography ; Images, Media and Representation in Research. (London: SAGE, 2003), 24.

[2] Pink, 26.

[3] Pink, 73.

[4] Gabrielle Hezekiah. “Book Review: Sarah Pink, Doing Visual Ethnography: Images, Media and Representation in Research.” European Journal of Cultural Studies 5, no. 4 (November 1, 2002): 502–4. https://doi.org/10.1177/13675494020050040801.

[5] Pink, 27.

[6] Pink, 38.

[7] Pink, 34.

[8] Philippians 2:6-8.

[9] Andy Crouch. Strong and Weak. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2016), 76-77.

About the Author

Mark Petersen

Mark Petersen is the CEO of Stronger Philanthropy, a Canadian firm specializing in maximizing family philanthropy. He leads a diverse group of visionary individuals, foundations and organizations to collaborate in leveraging wealth for charitable impact.

10 responses to “Power, and the surrender of power”

  1. I loved your post Mark. You did a great job of analyzing the book in relation to your area of study and I enjoyed how you highlighted the topic of the power of the researcher. Also loved the video you shared at the end, a very powerful example of video ethnography. Also, I’m curious about your thoughts on the ethics of photographing people without their knowledge or consent and how that fits with the ethnography process?

    • I’m a fan of seeking consent for photographing others, either through a waiver at an event or through a simple request in person. I’m also increasingly suspicious of how my image would be used for marketing.

  2. M Webb says:


    Sharing power, between the ethnographer and the informant, really connects with me and my vocational ministry to hard to reach places. Excellent introduction of your research question and focus on philanthropy as your vocational ministry to the “eye of the needle.”

    Like you, I found Pink’s use of “informant” an awkward way of defining the ethnographic researcher and subject relationship. Informant in the penal system has quite another meaning, which would put both parties at risk.

    I like your perspective on the philanthropist’s role as a giver and “The Things I Find Beautiful” video was touching on many levels. I’m not sure Pink’s work prepares us for the rapid advance of technology, but in your line of ministry, I think it is amazing where you might go with your research question. Excellent outside-in critical engagement and analysis of Pink through the eyes of Hezekiah and Crouch.

    Stand firm,

    M. Webb

    • Mike,

      Thank you for framing my ministry as a focus on the “eye of the needle”. It’s the first time I’ve considered it in that way, and I really appreciate this new language and framing of the vocation.

  3. Shawn Hart says:

    Mark, I am so glad you hit on a point that I had actually forgot about in the book, because it was a comment that really made me struggle. You commented Pink’s quote, “Ethnographers ought to be self-conscious about how they represent themselves to informants and they ought to consider how their identities are constructed and understood by the people with whom they work.”
    So here is the question that I struggled with: Do ministers of the Gospel have this luxury?

    I understand that this may not have been the direction Pink was going, but I do believe it is the integrity question she touched upon. In South Africa we had a great discussion with our group concerning how to talk about those tough topics like homosexuality. Do we compromise evidence if we are hesitant to obtain it with an honest direction? I read an article the other day where the author was simply stating the health problems that come from males practicing homosexuality. In this article he included images of charts and statistics; however, the problem was that he was submitting it to a hostile, homosexual audience. If the visual ethnographer took into consideration not just his sources, but also his audience, how much could you really have trusted his evidence?

    I suppose the point of my question is not topical, but rather ethical…when do you hold back on the message?

    • Hi Shawn,

      I’m not sure I completely understand your question, but I’ll give it a shot. I think Pink’s quote can be applied to anyone in ministry quite effectively. In other words, I think Christian ministers should strive to have integrity in being open and vulnerable with their community. That said, Jesus encourages us to be wise as snakes and harmless as doves. So in all we do and say, we must be shrewd, and patiently wait for the kairos moment to speak the truth.

  4. Jennifer Williamson says:

    Mark, the video made me cry. I hope each of those people could hear the voice of God reflected in Shea’s simple declaration that each of them are beautiful. And yes, it greatly illustrated the use of power to empower. And how uncomfortable that makes us. And how hard it is to believe good things, and actually receive power when it is shared. As a missionary living on support, this spoke to me on many levels. Thanks.

  5. Jay Forseth says:

    Hi Mark,

    Wow, wow, wow. What a video. It was so powerful I cannot think of what to say. I cannot even remember what we were supposed to talk about. It was mesmerizing. An amazing choice for your conclusion…

  6. Jean Ollis says:

    Hi Mark! Your post was excellent and I have a strong reaction to this statement:
    “Money has remarkable power when held and retained.” I tried to share some visual ethnography with you – a picture of President Zulu’s home, in which he allegedly stole South African’s money for personal gain at his compound. Apparently, it won’t let me add it in a reply. Here’s the link instead:
    You are absolutely right that there is a power differential when you are the keeper of the money – I would love to hear more about how you navigate that power differential between your funders and your fundees.

  7. Trisha Welstad says:

    Mark, Your questions in the middle of your post seem to hit right on your research topic. The balance of the poor and wealthy and the power struggles that come between haves and have nots while trying to be humans without objectifying one another is a real challenge.

    Do you see some of the ways to lower the power imbalance as a part of your solution to transferring wealth in your dissertation studies? How might these solutions impact the philanthropists you work with currently?

    And I love the video! What a beautiful simple picture of grace and kindness.

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